With illegal streams on the rise and viewer numbers falling, is it time for a Spotify for sport?

Streaming is doing for football fans what file-sharing once did for music buyers, writes Tommy Martin.

Updated at 12:00

England World Cup qualifier against Ukraine on Internet A fan streams the England vs Ukraine World Cup qualifier match in 2009 PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

I SHOULD IMAGINE there is nothing more annoying for ‘millennials’ than being labelled ‘millennials.’

The term is normally used in some new survey or other, which reveals how that section of the population are basically goggle-eyed, Snapchatting cyborgs whose brains have become little more than Youtube channels of endlessly looping water bottle flips.

‘Millennials’ are usually described thus by their perplexed elders, terrified at their disrupting ways. It reminds me of being labelled a member of Generation X, with its inference that we all spent our 1990s lives moping aimlessly in plaid shirts listing to Stone Temple Pilots on a Sony Discman.

Nonetheless, the way ‘millennials’ carry on, as with every preceding youth demographic, is always bad news for someone older and richer, and this week it was the powerful nexus of professional sport and pay-TV in the firing line.

Tottenham Hotspur v Southampton - Premier League - White Hart Lane Christian Eriksen celebrates scoring for Tottenham recently John Walton John Walton

A survey by the UK-based Sports Industry Group (SIG) revealed that 54% of those aged between 18-24 years admitted watching sports on illegal streams, with a third saying they do so regularly, compared to just 4% of over-35s.

The survey also revealed that those pesky millennials are only half as likely to subscribe to pay-TV sports services such as Sky Sports or BT Sport.

So the age group that is three times more likely to be unemployed than the UK national average is less willing to stump up for ever-increasing sports subscriptions? And the very age group with the technological savvy to get around the vast sports TV paywall gleefully uses it?

Well duh! (as millenials almost certainly do not say anymore).

The normalisation of illegal streaming is the latest canary-in-the-coalmine moment for the TV sports rights bubble. It follows news of the downward trend in Premier League viewing figures. Statistics released by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board revealed that UK viewer numbers for the first half of the season had fallen by 11% compared to last season.

Licence for Deletion - The Hunting of illegal livestreams DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Sky Sports figures are down a whopping 25% since 2010, with the prime Sunday afternoon kickoffs averaging 1.1 million viewers, compared to 1.7 million in 2011/12.

Executives at the TV companies played down the declines, blaming passing factors such as the Olympic Games, the variance in match scheduling year-on-year and the absence of figures for legal streaming on the broadcasters’ mobile and online device apps.

But the real response of the Premier League and its broadcast partners came in the early months of this year, when in conjunction with law-enforcement agencies they launched what the league described as its “largest ever anti-piracy campaign.”

This crackdown saw a series of arrests related to the alleged supply of ‘Kodi-boxes’, devices that can be programmed to pick up illegal streams straight to users TV sets, while the Premier League also won a high court order to allow Internet Service Providers to shut down entire servers hosting illicit feeds.

NY: Spotify reaches 50 million subscribers SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

“Our model is predicated on the ability to market and sell rights and protect our intellectual property,” a Premier League spokesperson told the Guardian. “It is because of this that clubs can invest in and develop talented players, build world-class stadiums, support the English football pyramid and schools and communities across the country.”

Sympathy for a system that allows Jermaine Defoe to employ someone to re-stock his fridge may be in short supply; rather than any concern for schools and communities, the Premier League’s clampdown is probably more to do with the fact that its domestic TV rights package, which earned them £5.14 billion last time out, is up for renewal next year. But industry insiders fear that the technological genie may be out of the bottle when it comes to illegal streaming.

Of course, we Generation Xers have seen all this before. For the 2017 sports industry, read the efforts of the music business in taking on file-sharing sites such as Napster from the late 1990s on. Many millions of dollars were spent on courtroom battles to stop illegal downloads, yet today streaming is the dominant form of music consumption, not expensively priced CDs.

The lesson for sport? The music industry eventually realised people would pay for their product, just not quite as much as they wanted for it. After almost two decades of financial turmoil, in January the Financial Times revealed that the US music industry was on course to record a second consecutive year of growth, something which hadn’t happened since 1999, the year Napster was launched.

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Second Round - Sunderland v Exeter City - Stadium of Light Sunderland striker Jermaine Defoe Richard Sellers Richard Sellers

Pay-TV companies are hoping that so-called Over-The-Top (OTT) services like Sky’s Now TV will tap into the market that is currently doing its specialised streaming via illegal means. But at €10 per day for Sky Sports programming, Now TV is unlikely to sink the pirates; the same amount gets you a month on Netflix or Spotify.

Sports TV subscriptions have been inflated beyond their true value by warring telecommunications giants, while the proceeds of the bidding wars have created an industry as extravagant in its spending as anything from the music industry’s stretch limo, pre-Napster heyday. But now streaming is doing for football fans what file-sharing once did for music buyers.

Unless the leagues and TV companies come up with an affordable alternative, a sort of Spotify for sport, where you can pick what you want to watch for a reasonable sum, then they may well be in for a similar shock to that endured by the music industry.

And football shouldn’t just expect its market dominance to protect it. The SIG survey also revealed that declining numbers of millennials described football as their favourite sport, while 20% say they have no interest in sport at all, compared to 9% of over 35s. This could all present a nightmare scenario: an older audience becoming more comfortable with illegal Kodi-style streaming, and a younger audience losing interest altogether.

It’s enough to drive this Generation X-er back to his Discman. Although I hear MiniDisc is where it’s at now…

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